As this week was Spring Break and thus I had nothing new to report, my friend (hey, Kelsey) suggested that I, as an avid reader, write a post on the books about Blackness that have impacted my life.
It’s a great idea, especially since I know this list will change, not only from year to year, but from month to month, week to week, as I read more and explore the expansive terrain of Black Studies. I also want to give a special shout out to Lynn Weiss, Njelle Hamilton and Lisa Woolfork for introducing me to many of these texts and authors. Without these books, I wouldn’t be who I am, and without you all, it’s possible I wouldn’t have found these books.
So without further ado, I give you my top ten Black novels that shaped who I am intellectually, what I care about as a scholar and a writer, and to greater extent, who I am as a person:
- Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The first book I ever read by Adichie, Americanah hooked my heart from the first page. The narrator, Ifemelu, speaks of her discomfort at a hair salon and I couldn’t help thinking, This is me. For the very first time, I saw someone in a novel that felt like me, that shared my struggles, and most importantly looked like me. I’ll be forever grateful to Adichie for giving me Ifemulu– after reading Americanah, I no longer felt alone.
(I’ve also written about Americanah on my personal blog, Quoth the Ravynn. Click here for more.)
2. Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
The best way to get through to me, is through my father. Coates’ narrative of a B-more boy learning the ways of Blackness and America by trial and error, reminds me of everything I love about my father and his stories. It’s raw truth. It hurts to read. It is necessary to read.
(I’ve written about Between the World and Me on my personal blog. Click here for more.)
3. Another Country, James Baldwin
Baldwin has zero qualms about giving you the good, the bad, the ugly. Another Country scrapes through gore and heat of America in the 1950s to show the rotting underbelly of a system gone wrong. It offers an escape route, my dear France. The musicality of it has the ghost of Mahalia Jackson humming in my ear. Nothing is more impactful than Baldwin. He gives you sentences clean as a bone– and then stabs you in the heart with it.
4. Passing and Quicksand, Nella Larsen
I really couldn’t tell you what it is that I love about Nella Larsen’s work. It’s sharp and feline, with emotionally volatile female heroines. It’s sensual, both in style and its attention to sensations, like the feel of texts and its hues. It’s mystifying, unsatisfying– and I can never stop thinking about her novels after I read them.They strike me with the desire to read again and again until I uncover the mystery.
5. Half-Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan
I read this for a class at UVA and I’ve carried it in my heart ever since. It has everything that I love in it– jazz, history, miscegenation, that Southern Black dialect, a back drop of France, an international perspective, one femme fatale, a certain mysticism about it, a ghostliness. It is a fiction surrounded by an ugly truth, expressed by the slow notes of Hiero’s trumpet.
6. Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
This book was assigned in my ninth grade English class. I will never forget the complaints of the white boys who complained that they couldn’t read it; while in my mind it made perfect sense. I remember thinking, just sound it out. And then I realized they probably had never heard anyone speak this way. But it was the sound of my people. It was the language of my grandparents’ trailers, Christmas and Thanksgiving. It was the sound of love. Plus when you add in Janie’s “take-no-prisoners” attitude, I thought, Now this is a female depiction that I can get behind.
7. The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois
If you haven’t read it, please just go get yourself a copy right now.
8. Native Son, Richard Wright
Another classic. Bigger’s transformation reminds me that the story is so much more than one boy’s narrative. It is the potential story of every Black man that has ever existed and will ever exist in America. White society put a target on Black men’s back because there is no presence more feared that that of a Black man. And that is a national tragedy– a socially induced tragedy.
9. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, James Weldon Johnson
This is another transnational, multilingual, musical text that explores the fluidity of Black identity. For me, as a former French scholar, I’m always invested in how different languages and cultures influence and impact American Black identity. I’m particularly interested in the Black intellectual expatriate– what does Europe offer that America can’t? What is this line that the Ex-Colored Man is perpetually toeing between classical music and ragtime, proper English and the sonic Black vernacular, the opera and the club? I love that it doesn’t have to be one or the other here– it can be both. It’s fluid.
10. The White Boy Shuffle, Paul Beatty
Very little gives more more joy than depictions of Black boys. They’re hilarious. They’re just trying to figure it out. The performativity of Black masculinity is so absurd and yet the seriousness with which boys go about figuring out how to perform it is critical to their development. Beatty hits it all– you gotta learn to ball, you gotta get the haircut, learn how to dab, the art of the insult, you gotta get the girls and you gotta be able to do something on the dance floor. But it’s still satire– Beatty doesn’t miss the danger of it all, the implications, and the traumatic consequences of the pressure to perform. It’s full of wit and vibrant sences, while also dropping every Black reference known to man and some only known to him.
Honorable mentions go to:
- Caucasia x Danzy Senna
- Beloved x Toni Morrison
- Things Fall Apart x Chinua Achebe.
And while I’m here, I thought I’d do a few more categories of texts…
Short stories, collections, essays
- “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” Langston Hughes
- Drown, Junot Diaz (He’s Afro-Latino, he definitely counts)
- “The Mulatto,” Langston Hughes
- Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay (Read more here.)
- “What is this ‘Black’ in Black Popular Culture” x Stuart Hall
- “My President Was Black” x Ta-Nehisi Coates
- Waiting Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Peniel Joseph
- In Search of the Black Fantastic, Richard Iton
- Articulate While Black, Geneva Smitherman and H. Samy Alim
- Black Panther, Ta-Nehisi Coates
- The March trilogy, John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell
- Strange Fruit: Untold Narratives of Black History, Joel Christian Gill
and, finally, an honorable mention category to FILMS...
- 13th x Ava DuVernay (for the mass incarceration lesson)
- Brown Sugar x Rick Famuyiwa (for the hip-hop history lesson)
- Hidden Figures x Theodore Melfi (for the Hampton Roads Black women history lesson)
While some may be astonished that no poetry made my list, it’s mostly because I was never one to writes lines from poems on my wrist. I was always lost in my novels. The characters were my friends– and they still are.
Maybe some day, I’ll do another one of these with music or film or TV shows. It’s all valuable, and it has all shaped me.
God, am I grateful for books and for my parents gifting me with a never ending supply of them.